Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Level Headed

Hungry Horace by William Tang ca. 1982

My 7 year old son has just got into computer games. It is a little scary how quickly it has turned into an obsession. But I can remember quite clearly my own fascination with computer games, so should I or can I really stop him?

I was older than him when I started getting into computers. It was the early 80s, and I was given a ZX Spectrum for my twelfth birthday in 1982. I used to buy computer magazines with pages of code on them, comprising of numbers, dots and dashes. I would spend hours typing these into my computer, even though the result would be a stick figure moving across the screen. After 4 hours of imputing, the computer might show up an error, which meant I had made a tiny mistake somewhere. Then I would have to scour through what I had done once more to find the mistake. Sometimes I never found it and had to give up.

Games were on tape cassettes. You would have to put them into a cassette recorder which was plugged into the computer. The screen would flash red to blue to the sound of a wavering high pitched frequency until, after about ten minutes or so, the game might load, if you were lucky.

A few weeks ago I showed my son an online computer game after he entreated me for weeks to play. Not long after this he was able to type in the website by himself and go to the game he wanted. Then on Saturday, I got up in the morning to see him and my 3 year old in front of the computer playing "The Hobbit", a computer game tied in with the Lego website. It is quite violent. Gandolf, the main character clubs everything in his path to the last inches of their pixels and I wonder if I have made the right decision. I see my son animatedly thrashing the keyboard. How quickly he has mastered this game, I think, and how natural it has come to him to play computer games.  What is happening now in his brain, I wonder? As he pulverises goblins, is the thrill in hitting the target no more harmful that hitting a target in archery, say, bringing with it a sense of achievement or satisfaction? Or is there there danger that being the master of this digitalised kingdom may give him a sense of power that he is unable to achieve in the real world, and thus make him feel safer sitting in front of a computer screen.

The scary thing is that in a few minutes I am as deeply enthralled by the game as he is. You cannot pause the game, and there are three levels to play. The soundtrack to the game comes back to me at other times of the day. I even find myself humming it as I go down the street. If you ever hear the music to the Hobbit game on the lego site, then you will find the idea of a 42 year old singing this in public hilarious.

The games that I played as a child come flooding back to me as I watch my son playing his. My favourite game, which looks so primitive now by today's standards was  Horace goes skiing. A friendly hooded character wants to go skiing. But first he has to cross a busy motorway to get to the ski slope and not get run over and taken away in an ambulance. Then he gets to ski down a slalom track. Not violent, but not exactly green cross code either. I don't know how this game affected me. I didn't feel the compulsion to run across busy roads after having played it, or else I wouldn't be here today. I don't believe that what is enacted on the screen desensitises children from rash behaviour or violence for that matter.

I do think though that those hours of playing computer games did perhaps have a negative affect on me, though I cannot be sure. The computer game used up quite a lot of my time where I could have been doing more creative hands-on activities. It created a routine and boundaries that existed within the game, and not which I could learn to develop myself. I had the feeling that I was doing a lot, whereas I was just sitting in front of the screen.

Today it is impossible to think games, computing and the digital world away. I just hope that I can help my son strike a balance between these two, very real, worlds.

What is your experience of your kids computer playing habits?
My first computer, ZX Spectrum from 1982

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